Local Policy

June Roundup: Cross-Sector Coordination, Preserving Rental Housing, Comments on Facility Co-Location, and Other Notes

By Michael A. Spotts

As summer (and vacation season) starts, it's easy for news and events to slip through the cracks. To bring everyone up to speed, here's a roundup of what Neighborhood Fundamentals has been doing over the last month:

Quick Links: thoughts on meeting missing middle housing demand

By Michael A. Spotts, President

On Friday, February 16, the NACCED Holistic Housing Podcast (which I highly recommend generally) featured Jonathan Coppage of R Street Institute. Titled "Putting the Granny Back in Granny Flat," the podcast discussion went beyond accessory dwelling units and covered a wider range of missing middle housing typologies that can create a broader, more market-based spectrum of housing affordability (a topic covered in previous Neighborhood Fundamentals commentary earlier in January and February). 

One of the key points of that discussion was that post World War II zoning codes have made many middle-density housing typologies in mixed-use neighborhoods either illegal or difficult to build. If anecdotal evidence (and evidence based on price effects) is accurate that demand for such neighborhoods is increasing, a healthy market would make such neighborhoods the "path of least resistance" from a zoning and regulatory perspective. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. 

Yet while the focus is often on use, form and density levels, last week Sarah Kobos wrote for Strong Towns about an oft-overlooked barrier to neighborhood diversification: the subdivision ordinance. The article discusses subdivision in the context of infrastructure - block length, street connectivity, dead ends, cul-de-sacs, etc. Municipalities can and should create a regulatory framework that allows or encourages walkability, adaptability and flexibility. This would put "traditional neighborhoods" back on an even playing field, and mitigate the isolation of the "islands of urbanism" developments that are sometimes built in suburban regions (in other words, the development titled "Town Center" where there hasn't been an actual town in decades). 

Subdivision ordinances can make a difference for smaller parcels or individual owners as well. Neighborhoods built to lower densities than current code allows might still struggle to evolve if the subdivision process is cumbersome. Accessory dwelling units are important to housing affordability, but that specific solution is not right for everyone. Can the owner of a 1/3 or half-acre lot near an urbanizing transportation corridor subdivide and sell a portion of the site? Can an "empty nester" interested in downsizing convert their larger home into a duplex? If the economy slides and demand for "McMansions" decreases, can they be converted into multiple apartments/condos? These are the types of activities that allow incremental evolution of a neighborhood. I would also argue that these options increase a neighborhood's economic resilience. When considering strong development policy, it is important to think beyond the zoning code. 

New for Shelterforce: Reversing the community benefits paradigm for publicly owned parcels

By Michael A. Spotts, President
Twitter: @MichaelASpotts

Last week, my former colleague Ahmad Abu-Khalaf (follow on Twitter at: @Ahmad_AbuKhalaf) an I wrote an article for Shelterforce about our past research for Enterprise Community Partners on utilizing publicly owned parcels to provide community benefits. In this article, we talk about successful public-private partnerships that have yielded positive results, but pose the question: are we missing an opportunity to more aggressively address gaps in wealth between communities and households? To answer the question, we put forward a potential new model:

What if instead, public agencies granted site control—and the ability to capture a greater percentage of value appreciation—to a mission-driven entity such as a large-scale nonprofit developer, community development corporation, cooperative, or community land trust? This community-based, mission-oriented master developer could then theoretically subcontract with market-rate developers for portions of the site from a position of strength, and ensure that the community-serving portions of the development are not marginalized. Over time, a successful development would not just provide affordable homes and community space, but it could also provide on-going dividends to the community that might otherwise flow to non-local corporations and shareholders.

For more information, read the full Shelterforce article to get our thoughts on what has worked in the past, what can be done to create a more equitable approach, and important considerations for moving a new model forward. You can also access the full Public Benefit from Publicly Owned Parcels series

People need to live somewhere: the unintended consequences of micromanaging zoning and building codes

By: Michael A. Spotts, President (@MichaelASpotts)

Yesterday, I sent a tweet thread in response to an article about potential zoning changes in Denver:
















In short, Denver is addressing complaints that developers are exploiting provisions in its zoning code that allow them to build internally-facing rows of attached housing on narrow lots. These “slot homes” can result in less-than-desirable street frontage. This is not an illegitimate concern – street level activation is important for creating a quality pedestrian experience and encouraging livability. The city’s response has been to add requirements to the code that require modifications to orientation and building form, while also expanding the number of areas where such housing could be built.

As far as modern zoning compromises go, this one seems reasonable. The zoning/land use policies become more restrictive in some respects, while more flexible in others. Perhaps it will solve this specific challenge. However, I can’t help but think that this intervention fails to get at the underlying issue: the current zoning code was not accommodating current demand (in this cases, homeownership opportunities in urban neighborhoods), so developers found a work around. This reminds me of Seattle’s “apodments,” in which developers responded to sky-high demand for housing by creating “tiny” units (effectively, modernized group homes) in predominantly detached single-family neighborhoods, to much public controversy.

When I discuss the impacts of neighborhood change, gentrification and anti-displacement efforts, I try to point out that we cannot only focus on making sure existing residents continue to have a place in the community (though that is critically important). Those moving in are real people with the same fundamental need for safe, decent and attainable housing as those already there. We can’t simultaneously complain about the stereotypical “hipster millennials” still living with their parents, while decrying it when they go out and seek housing on their own.* People need to live somewhere.

Which brings us back to zoning. When demand is sufficiently high but zoning overly restrictive, it is inevitable that people will try to find ways to accommodate that demand, even if it violates the “spirit” of the rule. And when the “spirit” of the rule prioritizes form and aesthetics over the need for shelter, something has to give. If a work-around can’t be found, there are negative consequences in terms of cost-burden, overcrowding and homelessness. When developers find a way to be creative, the established (often aesthetic) preferences can be disregarded. Furthermore, once a work-around is identified, there is likely to be a rush to replicate it as much as possible before changes are made in response to neighborhood criticism. Allowing a more diverse set of building typologies (and yes, higher-density) by-right would create a “safety valve,” potentially relieving demand pressures and permitting neighborhoods to evolve in a more natural way.

Note: This is a comment on the basic ability to find shelter – there have been legitimate complaints in some cases about cultural insensitivity when a demographically different cohort moves into a new neighborhood, particularly when the new arrivals are higher-earners.

Can Arlington scale up affordable housing efforts to meet ambitious goals?

By: Michael A. Spotts

From 2012-2015, my adopted hometown of Arlington, VA held an intensive process to update its housing affordability policies, culminating in the passage of an Affordable Housing Master Plan (AHMP) and Implementation Framework. Over the course of three years, I had the honor of serving as the vice-chair of the working group that advised County staff and leadership on this effort. In the end, local advocates, County staff, and the working group were successful in building unanimous support from the County Board for an ambitious set of goals and targets. Notably, the AHMP included the goal of maintaining the County's current economic diversity through increasing the supply of affordable homes. This is a difficult task given that market pressures have significantly decreased the stock of affordable rental housing options, and affordable homeownership opportunities are few and far between.

Since 2015, County staff have worked to implement several of the recommendation included in the Implementation Framework, including recently-passed revisions to the County's Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) and parking policies, as well as ongoing efforts to support the preservation of market-rate affordable rental properties. While I have concerns about certain aspects of recent efforts (for example, I believe the new ADU policy is still far too restrictive), they represent steps in the right direction and further demonstrate the commitment of both board and staff to housing affordability. 

Yet achieving the AHMP's supply-related goals will require an increase in scale. Success will hinge on the County's ability to continue to remove barriers to more naturally affordable housing types (ADUs, "missing middle" building typologies), as well as dramatically increasing the production of committed affordable housing. Each individual effort takes time and political will. 

To help address the issue of scale, a coalition of housing experts and advocates was formed to identify potential policy changes that could increase the production of committed affordable units. The result is a new report - Fulfilling the Promise: Meeting the Production Goals of Arlington's AHMP. This report was presented to the County board and staff in December. The coalition offered a menu of options that the County could consider to ramp up production from current annual levels of approximately 220 units to the nearly 600 units/year that would be necessary to preserve Arlington's current economic diversity.* Importantly, these options include not just funding increases, but also cost-reduction strategies that would allow scarce resources to be stretched further. This is particularly important in the context of changes to the federal tax code that will reduce the amount of subsidy available via the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Policy options considered include:

  • Reducing site plan conditions for new affordable housing construction
  • Waiving permit and tap fees for affordable housing projects
  • Reducing use permit conditions for rehabilitation projects
  • Modifying bonus density policy
  • Pursuing community-serving real estate opportunities
  • Offering property tax abatements/exemptions
  • Expanding sources of funding for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund

Moving forward, members of the coalition will be available to work with County staff and board to further vet these proposals, and hopefully move closer to achieving the goals of the AHMP.


*If Arlington is successful in removing barriers to more production of  naturally affordable housing types, the 600 unit annual target could be lower.